Back in 2012, I was trying to convince anyone who’d listen that we should have an elected mayor in Leeds. The proposal was far from perfect but it seemed like an improvement on the status quo. I’d seen Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson representing London’s interests on the national stage, and I wanted some of the same for my city.
Instead of electing a local councillor to collect bins, fix swings, and fill grit boxes, I wanted to elect a mayor to tackle poverty, improve schools, and fix the city’s transport. At the very least I hoped that the position might become important enough to merit a page on Wikipedia (both Leeds’ current and previous council leaders are conspicuous by their absence).
The people of Leeds disagreed. They rejected the proposed elected mayor in 2012 in a referendum. Every other big city except Bristol did the same. Liverpool only got its mayor by not holding a public vote on it.
“Give Clegg a kicking” and “Don’t let London tell us what to do” were sentiments sold hard by the local Labour party. They were decent attack lines, but I don’t think that they were decisive. What actually won the debate for “No” was the line that “the current system is more democratic”. I heard it over and over again from every party in Leeds.
My friends in other cities say it was the same where they lived, and it was a really hard argument to counter. How could electing a distant mayor every five years be more democratic than electing a local councillor to represent your specific local views every year? More votes for more politicians certainly feels like more democracy.
Fast forward to today, and once again the loudest argument I’m hearing against the new type of mayors proposed for English city regions is, “The current system is more democratic”. Yet in the two cities where I spend most of my time, Leeds and Birmingham, it’s now very obvious that this isn’t the case.
Judith Blake is probably an excellent politician and a fine representative of her ward, but she was selected to lead Leeds City Council only after this year’s elections were finished. That makes her even less democratically elected as a leader than Gordon Brown. At least we all knew that he was coming after Blair.
Democracy is similarly absent in Birmingham. The long-serving leader Sir Albert Bore has stepped down, and his replacement will now be selected by the same Labour councillors who are rumoured to have pushed him out. The people of Birmingham will not get a say.
The political system we chose to retain is about to select leaders of two of England’s largest cities without consulting the nearly 2m people who they will lead. I’d love to see the people who argued that “the current system is more democratic” than directly-elected mayors to change their minds. If not, then I hope that they are at least a little embarrassed.
Tom Forth runs a software company called imactivate and is an associate at ODILeeds. He tweets as @thomasforth.